Author Archives: larrycuban

About larrycuban

I am a former high school teacher and district superintendent who has researched school reform policies, the history of teaching, and classroom technologies for many years

Branding Teachers in Other Countries: Private Gain and Public Good (Tom Hatch)

“Thomas Hatch is a Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). He previously served as a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching where he Co-Directed the K–12 Program of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) and established the Carnegie Knowledge Media Laboratory.  He is also the founder of internationalednews.com, a twitter feed and blog that provides access to news and research on educational policy and educational change around the world.”

This post appeared September 13, 2017 on his blog

 

 

New York Times’ reporter Natasha’s Singer’s recent article on “brand-name” teachers, created quite a stir.  Reaction in the Times and elsewhere in the US focused on “topdog” teacher Kayla Dalzel and what EdSurge called the “murky relationship between edtech developers and the educators who tout their products.” For me, the emergence of “brand-name” teachers in the US (and “super tutors” and “celebrity tutors” in places like Singapore and Hong Kong) also highlights both long-standing tensions between private gain and the public good and the way that cultural and economic context shapes education systems.

The discussion reminded me of a conversation I had this summer with Pekka Peura, a Finnish high school math and physics teacher who could be described as an “entrepreneurial teacher.” Peura takes advantage of Finland’s celebrated autonomy for teachers by regularly trying out new ideas in his classroom.  At first, he simply experimented with changing his homework assignments, giving all the assignments to students in 7 week blocks rather than every single day, and letting students decide when and how to complete their work. Now he doesn’t use exams (almost unheard of in the highly exam-driven context of Finnish high schools and in math and physics courses in particular), and he doesn’t do any grading – the students evaluate themselves. Peura explained that he made these changes in his classroom in order to create learning activities and environments where students want to work hard and can evaluate and direct their own learning.

Peura surprised me, however, when he told me that, at the same time, he works systematically to build his reputation and “brand” among educators in Finland. He does that by making his teaching visible and sharing his plans and tools (like a seven week plan for teaching vector calculus) in his own blog, Facebook page, and YouTube videos, as well as in a new book, Flipped Learning, by Marika Toivola, Markus Humaloja, and Peura (the book will be published in English this fall).

Peura’s efforts to “build his brand” have paid off. His Facebook page now has 13,000 members, and he regularly receives invitations to speak at conferences and visit other schools and other countries. He’s gained access to other noted educators and those who wield power and influence in education, and his books and other works certainly have a bigger audience than he would otherwise have had.

Since my Norwegian and Finnish colleagues consistently emphasize the importance of equity and common identity – and not building an “individual brand” – Peura’s approach seem more American than Nordic. But Peura has always had a larger goal in mind: changing the traditional, academic focus of the whole Finnish education system.  As Peura explained, building his reputation is a key means of encouraging other teachers take advantage of the autonomy offered in the Finnish education system and to pursue and share their own efforts to change conventional instruction. “We just need a lot of teachers that are creating their own books, and blogs and leading their own subjects,” he told me.

From Peura’s perspective, Finnish teachers need to go public precisely because it is so counter-cultural. Although the Finnish education system is well-known for supporting teachers’ autonomy and independence, Finnish teachers are not particularly prone to collaborate or share their work. Furthermore, although many know the Finnish education system is high-performing, as Saku Tuominen (an expert on innovation and founder of HundrED) regularly points out, few people can name a single innovative educational tool or practice developed in Finnish classrooms (but everyone seems to know that Angry Birds was launched in Finland).

Given these circumstances, Peura explained to me that he feels that he not only needs to go public with his own work, he needs to help build an audience that is interested in hearing from educators and to encourage other educators to make their work and ideas public as well.  As he put it, “if you have some good tools or ideas to share, there is no one to share with unless people will listen to you.”

At the same time, Peura makes it clear that the relationship between commercial enterprises and classrooms in Finland is also dramatically different from the US.  As he wrote to me:

In Finland we don’t promote companies very easily. I don’t know any teacher, who gets money from some company to advertise them. But it is familiar that some companies give technology hardware or software for free for some classrooms to test them. But we give fair feedback, if the product doesn’t work in the classroom, it is said out loud.

From my point of view it is really important NOT to connect your name-brand with some one company, because we are a very small [community] and teachers know each other, especially if you are a well known teacher, and it eats into your credibility as a change maker. And one thing that is also quite common in Finland is that we try to seek open/free solutions, so if there is a free and a commercial product/solution, we promote the free one. It is crucial for your credibility to promote commercial products only if it’s the best and only solution for some problem. 

There are teachers like Kayla Dalzel and Pekka Peura all over the world, and all have to contend with the tensions between personal gain and the public good, but the context is different.  In this case, when it comes to the US and Finland, it all comes down to trust.  In Finland, they trust teachers.  In the US, we don’t.

We sometimes forget why that’s the case.  As Peura points out, trust, visibility and reputation are inextricably linked everywhere, but Finnish educators work in a system designed to build trust in teachers. US educators do not.

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Whatever Happened to Total Quality Management?

Heralded as an innovation that improved private sector companies, TQM swept across the educational landscape beginning in the late 1980s as a way of improving school performance.

Where Did the Idea Originate? In post-World War II Japan then occupied by the U.S until 1952, Japanese business leaders eager to reconstruct their economy turned to an American thought leader to think through and help the nation’s companies attain quality in production and distribution. They invited W. Edwards Deming and colleagues to rebuild their consumer and export economy to gain a niche in global markets that they lost at the end of World War II.

Using Demings’ ideas to achieve quality products in reconstructing the economy, company executives and employees began seeing the corporate system within which they worked as interlocking components that have to change as a whole rather than one-at-a-time or piecemeal to make products that could be sold worldwide. In time, the Japanese economy morphed into an electronic and automobile juggernaut by the 1980s.

By then, U.S. business leaders feeling the economic loss to Japan’s growing role in the global economy examined closely how Japanese firms had moved from a producer of shoddy goods to high quality products that sold internationally far better than U.S. goods. In no time at all, the name Deming became associated with the turnaround of the Japanese economy and “quality” became the watchword in both Asia (think South Korea and Japan) and the U.S.

Total Quality Management became the mantra that corporate leaders repeated endlessly. New programs anchored in the principles that Deming had articulated for the Japanese spread through U.S. companies as the guiding wisdom for corporate leaders.  (see here, here, and here)

What is TQM?

Basically, TQM is a company-wide process initiated and sustained by top managers for everyone in the company working together to make a better product. Continuous assessment and self-evaluation on the part of all employees working collaboratively is essential to the process.

Sometimes called “pillars” of TQM, four basic principles guide the innovation. In a series of slides, the author listed these principles:

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What Problem Did TQM Intend to Solve?

With the release of A Nation at Risk report (1983),  ever-rising criticism of U.S. students falling seriously behind students in economic competitors as evidenced by international test scores, local, state, and federal reforms spilled over the nation’s schools in the 1980s and early 1990s. Top leaders sought to apply TQM to the entire school system to engage all staff, both certified and non-certified to improve student learning and increase parent satisfaction, i.e., the customers.

Popular in the business community as a way of re-taking markets that foreign competitors had seized, educational policymakers saw this business innovation as a process applicable to solving the national problem of low student test scores on international tests and big city schools filled with poor and minority children and youth. Improved academic achievement would produce graduates who could enter the workplace with skills and knowledge that would lead to stronger economic productivity. Better schools, stronger economy. Problem solved.

Does TQM Work?

If by work, one means that TQM caused student test scores and parent satisfaction to rise, the answer is no. Although there are a few research studies that do show improvements in school districts and schools that researchers attributed to TQM (see here and here), in most instances, TQM was seldom implemented fully throughout school systems that adopted the process. Partial implementation of an innovation nearly guarantees that the outcomes of such efforts will be blurry if not inconsequential (see  here).

What Happened To TQM?

Basically, the phrase has disappeared in the swamp where educational innovations go to die and get buried. I did an Ngram of Total Quality Management to get a sense of how many mentions of the phrase appear in the literature. There a steep rise in the 1980s and a sharp drop beginning in the late-1990s. What kept that sharp drop from going even further down was the initiation of the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award in 1987 given to initially businesses and then schools. There is overlap between TQM and the Baldridge Award–see Ngram for Award–in that they are both aimed at increasing quality of product and use a systemic process to achieve that process. Because the Award is a federal law with Congressional appropriations and is administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce, it survives to this day. Not so for TQM.

Partial and selected implementation of aspects of TQM not only made evaluation of results hard but often led to confusion over what had to be done. Thus, there was varied implementation of a poorly defined innovation.

Because TQM was a systemic initiative involving many parts of the organization, be it a school or district and because the concept and its design meant different things to different people, TQM had many moving parts, some of which were considered crucial and others less so. District and school leaders determined to put TQM into practice often selected certain pieces of the design and not others. Such random and partial implementation of the concept, as in many other instances of putting innovations into practice, preceded demise.

 

 

 

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Cartoons and Stories of Students and Lawyers

For this month, I am combining those often repeated howlers that students write  on tests and say in class with a selection of actual back-and-forths between trial lawyers and witnesses. I wed these student stories/cartoons with courtroom exchanges to show that both children and professionals err and miscommunicate creating humor as they do. Enjoy!

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The following excerpts are from Charles Sevilla, Disorder in the Court: Great Fractured Moments in Courtroom History (1999). These exchanges between lawyers and witnesses have been taken from court documents.

q: : what was the first thing your husband said to you when he woke up that morning?
a: : he said, “where am i, doris?”
q: : and why did that upset you?
a: : my name is susan.

 

q: : And where was the location of the accident?
a: : Approximately milepost 499.
q: : And where is milepost 499?
a: : Probably between milepost 498 and 500.

 

q: : Trooper, when you stopped the defendant, were your red and blue lights flashing?
a: : Yes.
q: : Did the defendant say anything when she got out of her car?
a: : Yes, sir.
q: : What did she say?
a: : What disco am I at?

 

q: : Do you know how far pregnant you are now?
a: : I’ll be three months on November 8.
q: : Apparently, then, the date of conception was August 8?
a: : Yes.
q: : What were you doing at that time?

 

q: : Do you recall the time that you examined the body?
a: : The autopsy started around 8:30 p.m.
q: : And Mr. Dennington was dead at the time?
a: : No, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy.
q: : Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?
a: : No.
q: : Did you check for blood pressure?
a: : No.
q: : Did you check for breathing?
a: : No.
q: : So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?
a: : No.
q: : How can you be so sure, Doctor?
a: : Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.
q: : But could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?
a: : It is possible that he could have been alive and practising law somewhere.

 

A carpenter was giving evidence about an accident he had witnessed.
q: : How far away he was from the accident.
a: : The carpenter replied, “Twenty-seven feet, six and one-half inches.”
q: : What? How come you are so sure of that distance?
a: : Well, I knew sooner or later some idiot would ask me. So I measured it!

 

q: : I show you Exhibit 3 and ask you if you recognize that picture.
a: : That’s me.
q: : Were you present when that picture was taken?

 

Q: How old is your son-the one living with you.
A: Thirty-eight or thirty-five, I can’t remember which.
Q: How long has he lived with you?
A: Forty-five years.

 

Q: What gear were you in at the moment of the impact?
A: Gucci sweats and Reeboks.

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Parsing “Failed” School Reforms

The non-graded school, heralded as a game-changing innovation in the 1960s is unheard of today. In the 1970s, districts adopted Mastery Teaching and materials. A decade later, the innovative curriculum was gone. Like mushrooms popping up on a lawn after a rain, these innovations appear and then in a day or two are gone. Are they “failed” innovations?

Understanding “failure” in education is unlike the multi-billion industry of “failure analysis” when engineering and psychology experts figure out why bridges collapse, airplanes crash, and a nuclear plant has a melt down. In those cases failure is clear cut: cars topple off bridges; people die in crashes, reactors emit radioactivity into the air harming both workers and nearby residents. The product has failed and the consequences in lives, money, and public confidence are evident. Analyzing and then determining why the bridge, airplane and nuclear plant failed is essential.

In these clear-cut instances of “failure,” state and federal agencies launch investigations to figure out what caused the accident. Was it mistakes made by pilots, metal fatigue in the aircraft, design flaws in the bridges, or combinations of these and many other factors?

In short, “failure analysis” invokes the protocols of scientific inquiry to find exact causes of the accident to prevent future disasters.

When it comes to school reform, however, determining whether new policies are “failures” and why they happened is much more ambiguous. In the case of education there is no clear product being sold to the public which can be assessed for whether it “worked.” Surely there are innovations designed to improve teaching, learning, and the quality of schooling that require teacher resources and organizational infrastructure to implement the reform. But when, for example, a serious, well-funded school innovation appears, receives strong reviews from teachers, parents, and policymaker and then, in a few years, becomes a blip on the edge of the radar screen or even disappears,  no official agencies investigate. If anything, yawns occur. Occasionally, someone will ask: “Whatever happened to….? It is a puzzle.

Consider Professor Madeline Hunter’s model of effective teaching.

A former teacher and elementary school principal, and professor of educational administration and teacher education at University of California, Los Angeles, Madeline Hunter developed a model of teaching that combined effective instructional techniques applied to all academic subjects across elementary and secondary school classrooms. Called Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP), the teacher-centered, direct instructional model was anchored in, according to Hunter, psychological learning theory and educational research. Academic content was important as were specific student objectives on what they were to learn and the sequence of techniques teachers were to use to reach those content and skill objectives (see here and here).

Hunter’s genius was to convert this model into seven key features that every teacher had to cover within a lesson.  A common template for a “Hunter Lesson” looked like this:

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In the late-1970s and 1980s, professors taught this research-based model of “effective teaching” to their students; some school superintendents and principals mandated teachers to use the lesson template even including it in annual evaluations, and districts mounted extensive professional development programs. Checklists of lesson features appeared and were applied in tens of thousands of classrooms. Schools and classrooms became “Hunterized” (see here and here).

As one would expect with school innovations, the teaching reforms Hunter favored in planning and executing lessons ran into much criticism over its emphasis on direct instruction, relative neglect of student agency in making choices, and the behaviorist cast to teaching that she advocated (see here, here, and here).

But–you knew a “but” was coming–by the mid-1990s a few years after Hunter died, the lesson plan template, professional development workshops, and teacher education professors advocating the approach diminished and by the early 2000s, ITIP and lesson plan templates seemingly fell of the edge of the table.

Yet in the past decade, evidence of Hunter’s influence can still be seen in the continuing support for direct instruction and teachers–both new and veteran–using versions of the lesson template that Hunter had created (see here, here, here, here, and here).

Another innovation “failure?”

Not at all. While the adjectives (“Madeline Hunter”} are mostly gone, the noun (lesson) continues to be the core of what a teacher plans and does in her classroom. The lesson is the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. And for over a century, teachers used these lessons to conduct teacher-directed classroom work (see here and here).

A lesson before Madeline Hunter appeared on the educational landscape and after she left still contained goals and objectives for the 50-90-minute lesson, the key questions that were to be asked, what instructional materials (texts and software) were to be used, activities (whole group, small group, and independent) students engaged in, and assessments to determine what students learned. The lesson was the map for the teacher-directed class.

And it was Madeline Hunter’s lesson plans and approach in the 1970s and 1980s that enhanced the dominant teacher-centered instruction that characterized U.S. schooling for nearly a century. Sure, the lyrics and melody may have changed here and there but it was still the same song.

No, the Madeline Hunter approach to teaching and her lesson templates added to and strengthened familiar ways that teachers taught before, during, and after the the life span of the innovation  even after the name-brand disappeared.

Maybe the definition of “failed” innovations has to be re-examined.

 

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Classroom Teachers are Policymakers

Note that no question mark follows the title. Teachers make policy.

Historically, the object of policies descending from the U.S. Congress, state capitals, and district school boards to the classroom, teachers are the ones who put policies into practice. As object of policy, however, school observers either forget or choose not to acknowledge that teachers also craft policy for their students in taking those policies that appear at their threshold and adapt them to their students. The title, then, is a fact.

Those classroom rules often listed on bulletin boards and walls are policies that the teacher makes for her students.

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Beyond the classroom walls,  however, those very same teachers take what federal, state, and local policies officials send to their classroom (e.g., teachers have to use high-tech devices to teach, they are required to “personalize” their teaching) and bend, squeeze, and adapt those policies to the contours of their classrooms. In doing so, they not only guard the gates of their classrooms but become policymakers in what they accept, amend, and reject. From demanding that teachers use cooperative group work to differentiating instruction to integrating digital devices into their daily lessons, teachers, constrained as they are by the “grammar of schooling,” nonetheless determine what and how they will teach.

Metaphors for policy implementation in schools and districts

Watching a policy travel from the White House, a state capitol, or a big city school board to a kindergarten or Algebra teacher has been compared to metal links in a chain, the children’s game of Telephone, pushing spaghetti, and street-level bureaucrats.

Classroom teachers at the end of the iron-forged links in a chain convey military images of privates saluting captains and duties getting snappily discharged. The telephone game suggests miscommunications that ends up in hilarious misinterpretations of what was intended by the original policy. Pushing strands of wet spaghetti suggests futility in getting a policy ever to be put into practice as intended in classrooms. Street-level bureaucrats suggests that teachers working in rule-driven organizations have discretion and choices in making decisions. I need to elaborate this last comparison because I think it best captures the fact that teachers are, indeed, policymakers.

Street-level bureaucrats are police officers who decide whether or not to give a traffic citation, social workers who determine what kind of help a client needs and where to find that help, emergency room nurses who decide which sick and injured need immediate attention and which ones can wait. Include also teachers who determine whether to stick with the lesson plan or diverge when an unexpected event occurs.

All of these professionals work within large, rule-driven organizations but interact with the public daily as they make on-the-spot decisions. Each of these professionals are obligated to follow organizational rules yet have discretion to make decisions.  They reconcile this dilemma of choosing daily between obligation to the organization and professional autonomy by  interpreting, amending, or ignoring decisions handed down by superiors.

In short, teachers are policy gatekeepers determining what enters the classroom and what gets into the daily lesson.

How about an example that illustrates these metaphors?

Consider kindergarten teachers. Most primary teachers have been trained to see young children holistically as growing human beings needing work, play, and nurturing as necessary ingredients to develop into educated and healthy youth. Teaching the whole child has been a guiding principle central to early childhood programs for nearly a century. Since the early-1980s, however, the standards-based curriculum, increased testing, and accountability policies have flowed downward pressing early childhood educators to make kindergartens into boot camps for 1st grade and preschool programs into learning the alphabet and counting numbers.

In the policy-to-practice metaphor of the linked chain, one would expect that most kindergarten teachers, feeling strong obligations to school superiors, would have altered their child-centered pedagogy and embraced the new policy by relying on direct instruction while abandoning learning centers, comfy reading corners, and free choice time.

For the metaphor of the telephone game, one would expect most kindergarten teachers to have received instructions on implementing standards-based and testing policies from top officials, district supervisors, and school principals. Those instructions and guidance on their journey to kindergarten teachers would have gotten increasingly distorted. These distortions would result in huge variation among kindergarten teachers in implementing these policies ranging from major shifts in pedagogy to minimal alterations in daily lessons to outright mistakes.

The metaphor of pushing wet spaghetti raises different expectations. Because of the futility of the task, adopted policies meander in and out of schools occasionally entering classrooms. Here, kindergarten teachers are fully autonomous and once they close their doors, they do as they please.

None of these metaphors from complete military-like attention to rules to complete freedom to implement a policy capture most kindergarten teachers’ practice at a time when they must cope with dilemma-filled tensions arising from reconciling their obligations to implement state standards-based policies and their beliefs in child-centered practices. And here is where Lisa Goldstein’s study of street-level policy enters the discussion.

Goldstein’s research on four kindergarten teachers in two high performing urban schools within a Texas district details their different actions in coping with state curriculum standards stressing academic preparation for first grade, annual tests that specifies what kindergarteners were to have learned, and their professional and personal beliefs about what five year-olds should be doing and learning.

What did she find out after observing and interviewing the teachers for two years?

“From Ann’s refusal to use the language artsworkbooks to Liz’s holiday celebrations
unit and from Jenny’s either/or literacy block to Frieda’s commitment to her
students’ self-esteem, all of these teachers’ curricular and instructional decisions
were actively shaped by personal understandings of the state standards and DAP
((Developmentally Appropriate Practices derived from the National Association of Early Childhood Education), informed by strategic knowledge and careful thought, and considered in relation to the needs of the particular children in the class and other contextual
factors. Every policy decision was unique and deliberate and reflected attention
to obligations, desire for autonomy, and the use of professional discretion.”

These kindergarten teachers blended developmental practices they had done for years while attending to what their district and state standards required five year-olds to learn by the end of the year. They translated their beliefs in the whole child and many experiences with primary children into hybrid practices that mixed “developmentally appropriate” activities with direct instruction. In short, these four teachers in two schools made policy by creating mixes–they were street-level bureaucrats that hugged the middle.

Goldstein’s study is only one qualitative study of four teachers. There are others that make a similar case that teachers exert autonomy in deciding what and how they teach and thereby make policy (see here, here, here, and here).

 

 

 

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Whatever Happened to Open Classrooms?

 

I am beginning a new feature in this blog called: “Whatever Happened To ….”

From time to time I will publish posts that take a look at innovations that policymakers and practitioners hailed as “transforming”  or “revolutionary” insofar as altering how districts conduct business, schools work, teachers teach and students learn. Not only hyped in the media and by word-of-mouth, these innovations spread across thousands of schools in the U.S. as their brand became known. Each was the reform du jour.

Such stories are a reminder of the ever-changing topography of U.S. schooling. Historians are like geologists who inspect strata of rock formations for what flora and fauna existed in earlier times and what accounts for their appearance and seeming disappearance.

The first of these I examine is “The Open Classroom” that mushroomed in schools and districts in the late-1960s through most the 1970s. To describe the innovation, I ask some of the questions that Jane David and I used when we wrote Cutting through the Hype (2010) and added a few that answer: “Whatever happened to ….”

If some readers are curious about particular reforms they experienced and now seem to have disappeared, please send me your thoughts.

 

The “open classroom,” an innovation that swept over U.S. schools between the late 1960s and early 1970s (see here and here), caused a few waves only to disappear from schools by the end of the decade with nary a ripple since. But appearances can be deceiving.

Where Did the Idea Originate?

U.S. Educators who visited British schools in the late-1960s spread the gospel of “open classrooms” in the Plowden Report (also called “open education” and “informal education”). Policymakers, academics, practitioners, and student-centered reformers watched teachers teach and listened to headmasters about the child-centeredclassroom that echoed in the ears of U.S.visitors as Deweyan progressivism clothed in 1960s apparel. Americans returned to their classrooms, schools, and districts filled with the optimism that accompanies true believers and began instituting open classrooms in big city and suburban districts (see here).

What is it?

Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs, cushions, and chairs moved from one attractive “learning center” for math to others in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools (see here).

In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing.

Consider the scene from a 3rd-grade open classroom in a New York City elementary school described by two proponents, Walter and Miriam Schneir, in a 1971 New York Times Magazine article:

What is most striking is that there are no desks for pupils or teachers. Instead, the room is arranged as a workshop.

Carelessly draped over the seat, arm, and back of a big old easy chair are three children, each reading to himself. Several other children nearby sprawl comfortably on a covered mattress on the floor, rehearsing a song they have written and copied into a song folio.

One grouping of tables is a science area with . . . magnets, mirrors, a prism, magnifying glasses, a microscope. . . . Several other tables placed together and surrounded by chairs hold a great variety of math materials such as “geo blocks,” combination locks, and Cuisenaire rods, rulers, and graph paper. . . . The teacher sits down at a small round table for a few minutes with two boys, and they work together on vocabulary with word cards. . . . Children move in and out of the classroom constantly.

What Problem Did Open Classrooms Intend to Solve?

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of traditional teaching through lectures, textbooks, and tests. Such teaching turned off students to authentic learning and could be transformed through “open classrooms” where student passions, interests, and curiosity could unfold through projects, learning centers, integration of different subjects, and multi-age groupings.

Richly amplified by the media, “open education” in its focus on students learning by doing resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms as just the right kind of solution to what ailed traditional public school teaching and learning.

Did Open Classrooms Work?

Depends on how one defines “work.” If the common measure of “work” is increased test scores on standardized tests, then the answer is somewhere between “maybe” and “no.” After all, the progressive/constructivist approach to teaching and learning, classroom organization, and student participation sought to increase student outcomes such as independent thinking, problem-solving, increased creativity, and others that few available tests then (and now) measured. Researchers and teachers who believed in the principles of informal education and adopted the innovation, adapting its organization and techniques to the students in their classrooms, more often than not, concluded that Open Classrooms worked (see here and here)

What Happened To Open Classrooms?

“Open classrooms” peaked in the mid-1970s and within a few years the innovation moved from the center of the public radar screen to a mere blip on the edge. There were both external and internal reasons for the shrinking of “open classrooms.”

Public concerns over a lagging economy, rising unemployment, and the Vietnam War grew into a perception, again amplified by the media, that academic standards had slipped, desegregating schools had failed, and urban schools had become violent places. School critics’ loud voices and rising public concern over these messy problems melded into “back-to-basics” policies that toughened the curriculum, increased the teacher’s authority, and required more work of students.

Turning to the schools that implemented “open classrooms,” because there were different definitions of what exactly an “open classroom” was and how it worked, teachers varied in which parts of the innovation (e.g., learning centers, schedule, student choices) they would adopt and adapt. Thus, putting the innovation into practice differed from classroom to classroom in a school, from school to school, and from district to district.

Then there was the increased workload of teachers to find materials, integrate different academic subjects into units, reorganize their classrooms, and shift in their beliefs about how best students learn. Much was expected of the teacher.

Consider also the students. Increased student choice depended a great deal upon their motivation, interests, and aptitudes. Most students relished the increased role that they played in their learning but there were (and are) many students who needed prodding and would avoid choices that gave them more work to do.

Both internal and external reasons combined to remove the “open classroom” innovation from public attention and practitioner interest.*

So were “open classrooms” just another fad? Yes and no. The yes part of the answer is that “open classrooms” as the educational version of long tail fins on cars and short skirts had, indeed, soared and faded from the public scene. But to call it a fad would miss the deeper meaning of “open classrooms” as another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educational progressives from conservatives since the first tax-supported schools opened their doors in the early 1800s.

Now, amid standards-based curriculum and test-based accountability where test scores, and dominates talk about schools, many teachers, particularly in the primary grades, continue learning centers and similar activities. “Open education” is still present in schools founded over 30 years ago such as the Los Angeles Open Charter SchoolRoots Elementary School in Denver, and many others. Teachers and principals still work quietly but keep their heads low to avoid in-coming shells of criticism. Most high school teachers continue to use teacher-centered practices leavened slightly by informal practices that have crept into their repertoires. The “open classroom,” then, was not a hula-hoop fad but another skirmish in the nearly two-century long ideological war in the U.S. over how best to make children into good adults and a better society.

So the “open classroom” has clearly disappeared from the vocabulary of educators but readers should expect another variation of “open education” to re-appear in the years ahead. As I read and listen to the rhetoric of “personalized learning” initiatives, the high-tech approach to student engagement and participation suggests a re-appearance. So deep-rooted traditional and progressive ideas about classroom teaching and learning and the best knowledge to instill in the next generation still (and will continue to) abide among taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents.

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*I thank Mike and Garth for their comments about the many and strong demands of “open classrooms” on both teachers and students.

 

 

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Distractions That Interrupt Learning (Tony Riehl)

Part of the core of teaching a lesson beyond sequencing whole group, small group, and independent activities, figuring out use of instructional materials, and timing each segment of the lesson is to reduce distractions. With hand-held devices ubiquitous among students, distractions multiply. What do teachers do to manage digital distractions?

Veteran math teacher Tony Riehl wrote a post on this subject. It appeared May 22, 2017 . He has taught high school math courses in Montana for 35 years. I added blogger Dan Meyer’s comments on Riehl’s post.

I learned early on with cell phones, that when you ask a student to hand you their phone, it very often becomes confrontational. A cell phone is a very personal item for some people.

To avoid the confrontation I created a “distraction box” and lumped cell phones in with the many other distraction that students bring to class. These items have changed over time, but include “fast food” toys, bouncy balls, Rubics cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot item now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.

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A distraction could be a distraction to the individual student, the other students or even a distraction to me. On the first day of the year I explain to my students that if I make eye contact with them and point to the distraction box, they have a choice to make. If they smile and put the item in the box, they can take the item out of the box on the way out of the room. If they throw a fit and put the distraction in the box, they can have it back at the end of the day. If they refuse to put the distraction in the box, they go to the office with the distraction.

On the first day of the year we even practice smiling while we put an item in the box. The interaction is always kept very light and the students really are cooperative. It has been a few years since an interaction actually became confrontational, because I am not asking them to put the item in my hand. I even have students sometimes put their cell phone in the box on the way in the door because they know they are going to have trouble staying focused.

This distraction box concept really has changed the atmosphere of my room. Students understand what a distraction is and why we need to limit distractions. We even joke sometimes because the box isn’t big enough to put “Billie” in the box.

 

This Is My Favorite Cell Phone Policy

By Dan Meyer • May 24, 2017 • 26 Comments

Schools around the world are struggling to integrate modern technology like cell phones into existing instructional routines. Their stances towards that technology range from total proscription – no cell phones allowed from first bell to last – to unlimited usage. Both of those policies seem misguided to me for the same reason: they don’t offer students help, coaching, or feedback in the complex skills of focus and self-regulation.

Enter Tony Riehl’s cell phone policy, which I love for many reasons, not least of which because it isn’t exclusively a cell phone policy. It’s a distractions policy.

What Tony’s “distraction box” does very well:

  • It makes the positive statement that “we’re in class to work with as few distractions as possible.” It isn’t a negative statement about any particular distraction. Great mission statement.
  • Specifically, it doesn’t single out cell phones. The reality is that cell phones are only one kind of technology students will bring to school, and digital technology is only one distractor out of many. Tony notes that “these items have changed over time, but include fast food toys, bouncy balls, Rubik’s cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot items now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.”
  • It acknowledges differences between students. What distracts you might not distract me. My cell phone distracts my learning so it goes in the box. Your cell phone helps you learn so it stays on your desk.
  • It builds rather than erodes the relationship between teachers and students. Cell phone policies often encourage teachers to become detectives and students to learn to evade them. None of this does any good for the working relationship between teachers and students. Meanwhile, Tony describes a policy that has “changed the atmosphere of my room,” a policy in which students and teachers are mutually respected and mutually invested.

This is a different approach. The cell phones are in jail. But I admire the incentive for parking your phone.

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